Hooking Up

On any night of the week, high school girls, some as young as 14 and 15, wander in to a home in Seaside known as the "Red House" to hang out with the guys who live there. The guys are in their twenties and have a band. The girls crush up Vicodin tablets and snort it, then strip and lap dance for the young men before engaging in group sex.

In Carmel Middle School, eighth grade girls give oral sex to boys in the bathrooms, sometimes to one boy after another. At Salinas High, girls stimulate each other to turn on the boys in their class. In Monterey, teens find someone old enough to drive and head up to raves in San Jose or San Francisco, where drugs and sex weave together into a blur of anything-goes behavior.

It's tempting to believe that some of these stories, which come from dozens of interviews with teenagers over the past several months, may be exaggerated. But it's stories like these that have the media nationwide blasting lurid headlines. From page one of the March 15, 2002 USA Today: "The Sexual Revolution Hits Junior High." From a U.S. News & World Report May 27, 2002, cover: "Risky Business-Teens Are Having More Sex-And Getting More Diseases."

With a lack of statistics and accurate studies available, researchers have to rely mainly on anecdotal evidence to guess at how much of this type of "hardcore" sexual activity is taking place among teens and pre-teens. Many agree that kids appear to be having sex at younger ages, and that sexual behaviors once considered unusual are on the rise.

Information is particularly hard to gather from an age group reluctant to talk to adults in the first place, and in a society where most adults are uncomfortable thinking-let alone talking-about youngsters having sex.

But evidence such as an increase in sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and HPV among teens points to increased sexual activity. There are also alarming signs that AIDS is emerging in younger populations-50 percent of new HIV infections are showing up in the under-25 age group.

We may be educating our kids, but their behavior flies in the face of our efforts, and our babies keep having babies. The United States has the highest teen birth rate in the industrialized world-1 million teen births a year-and although declining some, Monterey County has one of the highest rates in California. For every 1,000 births in Monterey County in 1998, 69 were to mothers under age 17.

Along with the physical risks, there are obvious potential emotional consequences from adolescents pushing the envelope sexually. And while what's considered "normal" sexual behavior is subjective, most teachers, counselors, and parents agree that there are certain behaviors that carry serious risks.

Linda Pinkham, Health Services Coordinator for the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, is careful not to jump to conclusions about teen sexual activity, but agrees that it has appeared to move into the younger ages. She says that the district's more comprehensive sexual education program has moved down from 10th grade to 9th grade to reflect the younger ages of kids engaging in sexual activity.

"In 9th grade students get the whole ball of wax," she says. "It seems early enough. We do have kids in 7th, 8th, and 9th grade who get pregnant-but it's rare and doesn't happen that often."

Pinkham, who used to be a school nurse at Seaside High, says it's hard to distinguish rumor from fact. Students who talk to her and other adults aren't likely to come out and say that they are having blow job contests on their lunch hour.

"I've heard about middle schoolers engaging in oral sex," she says. "But I haven't seen studies."

Pinkham, like other educators, believes that it's a small group of students doing the more explicit sex acts.

"I wouldn't say there are lots of red flags going up or that we have an epidemic here," she says. "But as with most communities, there are kids who are promiscuous and not taking precautions."

Noah Schumpert, a drug counselor at the Clint Eastwood Recovery Center in Monterey, is particularly disturbed by a dynamic that he believes is becoming increasingly common, in which younger girls are having sex with older men.

"I don't think there is an aggressive enough approach to the age difference," he says. "There's 25-year-old men sleeping with 14-year-old girls, and its absolutely outrageous."

And it's got lifelong implications-in California almost two-thirds of teen girls who have babies are impregnated by adult men over age 20.

California law states that an adult who has sex with a minor is breaking the law. Judy Beck, Deputy District Attorney for the county's sexual assault crimes unit, says she sees about 60 statutory rape cases a year.

Beck says that cases are often brought to her by parents, or by a girl who realizes after the fact that she's been taken advantage of.

"We don't see kids as having any kind of independent decision-making skills before 18," Beck says. "We don't acknowledge consent before then."

In her work with statutory rape victims, Beck says, she sees young girls who believed they were in love and going to be taken care of. It rarely works that way.

The age spread is usually large. "A lot of my victims are 14-16 years old," she says. "The men are in their mid-20s."

For the most part, Beck says, the men involved are looking for an easy sexual target and don't use contraception.

"The obvious fallout is that the girls get pregnant and aren't emotionally ready to handle it," she says. "The guys say, 'I'll take care of the baby.' Some of them do, but most of them don't."

Beck says that some of the girls she interviews are promiscuous.

"Society seems to be really encouraging their behavior," she says. "It's great if people are talking about sex openly, but they don't seem to be promoting responsible behavior."

There's little doubt that outrageous behavior is happening today-and parents, educators, and counselors are deeply concerned. Dressed like Britney Spears, with tiny tube tops and exposed bellies, girls look sexual in a way that's incongruent with their emotional capacities.

They are also turning to a widespread sexualized culture for their guidance. This is compounding their confusion in the already unsettling period of adolescence.

Don't Ask, Don't Know

Reacting to the emergence of more and wilder sexual activity among younger teens and pre-teens, parents, teachers and counselors have formed two camps. On one side are those who promote abstinence as the only form of sex education. On the other side are those who believe the most sensible approach combines admonitions toward abstinence with information about contraception.

A new Bush administration program for abstinence-only education in the schools is in the works as part of welfare reform legislation, and could increase current federal funding to states to $500 million over the next five years.

So far 49 states have applied for the current funding, which runs out September 30. California has not applied for the federal money, because state leaders believe that abstinence-only education is unproven and unlikely to be effective.

Bill Albert of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy believes that states should have the flexibility to decide what type of sex education program they want to use, and tailor the program to different age groups.

"It seems perfectly reasonable that campaigns aimed at 9-12-year-olds should stress abstinence," he says. "But it's a common-sense view that teens should have access to contraception."

Albert, like many parents and educators, believes that universal abstinence is unlikely in teens faced with raging hormones and in a culture that hypes sex.

According to Frances Barrios, Director of Education at Planned Parenthood Marmonte, abstinence-only education is not credible and hasn't been proved effective.

"It would be ideal if they would wait until they were mature enough to handle the consequences, but it's a bit unrealistic to think they are not engaging in sexual activity," Barrios says.

But with all the money given to abstinence programs, there is no federal funding for comprehensive sex-ed programs-even though 85 percent of parents surveyed say they want sex education beyond "just say no" in the schools.

"It would be awesome if kids embraced abstinence," says Terri Schmidt, a mother of a teenaged daughter. "But I don't see that value. They so desperately want to connect with each other and be liked."

For mothers like Frances Miller*, a Carmel parent of four daughters, the heavy promotion of programs completely eschewing sex or drugs forces teens to see the world in black-and-white terms. Miller believes that the result of such rigid thinking is that those teens who deviate from the path of perfection give up quickly.

"They think, 'What the hell, I might as well do anything,'" Miller says. "It has such a bad impact, rather than focusing on self-esteem and making good choices."

With a goal of reducing STDs and teen pregnancy, as well as emotional trauma, most educators believe in a combination of safe-sex education, drug education, and guidance on abstaining from-or at least delaying-sexual experience.

Dr. Lynn Ponton, professor of psychiatry at University of California at San Francisco medical school and author of The Sex Lives of Teenagers, has worked with teens and adolescents for 22 years-kids whom she deems "healthy kids."

She believes that girls who have sex early are likely to suffer a loss of self-esteem. In contrast, boys who have sex at a youthful age have no change, or report a gain in their self-esteem.

Before the age of 16, Ponton says, teens are not ready to give consent to sexual intercourse. She believes sex at a younger age is emotionally and physically overwhelming, and that the types of behaviors teens are experimenting with are based on unrealistic ideas.

Ponton refers to a questionnaire used by researchers to determine sexual readiness among teens.

"It showed that girls who engage in sex under the age of 16 report feeling forced into it," she says. "Even though they gave their [verbal] consent, they are not really ready to developmentally and physically."

The societal pressure to have sex also doesn't jibe well with an equally strong societal attitude not to have sex.

"There's a paradox among teens," she says. "We have a double standard-the puritanical condemnation of a 1950s morality, but the activity is 2000."

Just Say 'Later'

By waiting a few years to begin having sex, teens can avoid some guilt and other hurtful psychological consequences. Both of the competing adult viewpoints-complete abstinence versus a more complex sex-ed program-agree that delaying the age of consent for sexual intercourse, perhaps to age 18, has many emotional and physical benefits.

In a 1995 study, the National Survey of Family Growth, researchers looked at the "wantedness" factor of voluntary sex. Most of the girls surveyed who regretted having sex had their experiences with older boys or men. The more significant the age spread, the more likely the girls later regretted the sexual experience.

Ponton feels that an age gap between sexual partners creates a power disparity in the participants.

"There has to be a balance of power in the relationship," she says. "If there's more than a four-year age difference, it's highly problematic."

It's hard to know if there's a bright side to the mass of sexual activity occurring, because it doesn't seem to correlate with increased empowerment or pleasure. Ponton isn't sure how many teens are getting pleasure out of their activities. Are girls, for instance, who give oral sex and receive anal sex, enjoying it?

"No one has got the statistics," Ponton says. "We know the percentage of adolescent girls achieving orgasm is very low, and I'd love to do a study, but the country is so sexually repressive we can't get the work through."

Frances Miller believes the increased sexual activity among teens is driven by a desire to gain control rather than to achieve sexual pleasure-much less love.

"The sex is very superficial," she says.

Miller makes clear that the idea of teens having sex does not bother her. It's the fact that the motivation is not love or caring.

"It's not the promiscuous behavior that concerns me-I grew up in the '60s," she says. "It's how the kids treat each other. It's all about power and has nothing to do with affection or even pleasure. It's all about getting it over on someone or owning someone."

In addition to trading sex for social status, girls also appear to be trading sex for drugs.

"A lot of females who enter our program tell us they never have to pay for drugs," says drug counselor Noah Schumpert. "They aren't necessarily feeling like they are selling their bodies, but these guys aren't giving up something for nothing. The girls are giving sexual favors."

Schumpert believes that many parents can't handle their kids' behavior on their own.

"Parents are in somewhat of a helpless-hopeless mode," says Schumpert. "The kids are out of control and the parents trying to bargain for some kind of influence, but they are inadequate."

Lip Service

It's difficult sometimes to separate legend from reality-teenagers like to talk big, after all. What is clear is that at least some kids' behavior has shifted towards hardcore sex.

Last month, teachers at Alisal High in Salinas discovered students having sex behind one of the portable classroom buildings, in the middle of the day, while school was in session. The couple was videotaping themselves.

Tina, a Monterey business owner, says that Sean, her 12-year-old nephew visiting from Florida, brags about getting oral sex from two girls at once. At a family Bar Mitzvah, Tina witnessed Sean's nine-year-old brother grinding his pelvis on a girl's backside, while Sean made lewd finger gestures to a crowd of horrified adults.

Many teens interviewed for this story described group sex activities-including oral sex contests to see how many guys a girl can "do" on the lunch hour at school.

"In the middle schools the really common thing is blow jobs in the bathroom," Miller says. "A lot of them get all this sex education and think, 'okay, we'll just give head, it's safer, and non-committal, and a step away from intimacy.'"

These types of incidents are hushed up quickly.

"A lot of schools attempt to deal with these issues in-house-I don't know why," Schumpert says. "We have run into kids who are obviously full-blown drug addicts who have never been referred out to help."

To parents like Miller, the unsullied reputation of the school and its patrons is at stake.

"I think one of the biggest issues is always denial," she says. "And that's increased when you live in a wealthy community where people are very image-conscious. I hear people saying that other people's children are doing these things, but not their own."

But when talking to teens, it's apparent that it's happening, to a degree, everywhere.

Whether in Carmel, Monterey or Salinas, there appears to be a notion that vaginal intercourse is the only "real" sex, and any other variation is safe and harmless.

"Anal sex appears to be chosen largely as a birth control method," Ponton says. "Also, girls who sign the pledge think they are maintaining their virginity."

With the kids heavily informed against the dangers of vaginal sex, many seem to think other sexual activities offer a better choice.

"Kids today are having oral sex to avoid vaginal intercourse-they falsely think it prevents against HIV transmission," Ponton says.

For Ponton, the main issue concerning these types of sexual behavior is one of non-equity. For instance, girls are performing oral sex on boys, and rarely vice-versa.

"It's 95 percent girls giving oral sex to boys, only 5 percent receiving it," she says. "It's a service operation."

According to Ponton and the teenagers interviewed, the girls see oral sex as an opportunity to get attention from boys. But the gains are short-lived.

"Initially, it's kind of a social status thing," Ponton says. "They guys are grateful and say that they love them. But then it turns very sharply once they have done it a few times."

Miller says her daughter's boyfriend feels pressure to be a "player," and that it's not cool for him to show feelings.

"Guys say, 'it's okay to get laid, but it's not okay to have a relationship,'" she says. "It's really sad. There's nothing really joyful about any part of it. They are informed, but the emotional component is pulled out."

Ponton agrees. She says it's similar to the way kids will label each other as "fags" or "sluts"-all stemming from a narrow-minded view of sexuality.

"Our country has such puritanical attitudes towards sex. Our kids do not see shades of gray," Ponton says.

Wild At Heart

Kate McEldowney is a psychiatric social worker and a mother who works in the Monterey Peninsula school system. She emphasizes that adolescence is by nature a risky time, with teens needing to experiment, but lacking the inherent ability to make safe choices.

"They have the bodies of little adults, but their brains are kid-like still," she says. "They have the world at the turn of a switch."

McEldowney believes the worst thing parents can do to a teenager is to try to control them, but that parents need to steer kids in the direction of safer activities that still offer excitement.

"Adolescents need to try on as many hats as possible," she says. "They need challenge and mastery over something -that's why sports are so good. Things like rock climbing and hang gliding are safer choices that still give them that challenge."

Indeed, kids cite boredom as one of the reasons for dangerous experimentation.

Kevin, 16, who recently moved to Carmel with his family from the Bay Area, says there isn't much to do here. He left Carmel High last year to home school, a choice he says he is very happy with. He says Monterey County isn't too happening for teens.

"It was cooler up there-there was so many more activities going on," he says. "It's a much less teen-oriented atmosphere here. Up there are arcades, better malls, and parties all the time. And there's a more scholastic atmosphere. It's boring here, but I've gotten used to it."

McEldowney sees many kids who are bored and "rudderless" falling into dangerous behaviors. She says that families who don't spend a lot of time together need to be especially good at communication and setting limits.

"I'm not going to blame parents for working," she says. "My daughter has to spend a lot of time alone. But we have rules. The Internet does not go on unless I'm home."

She also feels that parents who shower their kids with material objects set them up not to value each other.

"We can kill our kids with too much," she says.

McEldowney finds parents don't want to hear from her about what's going on with their kids. Many won't return her phone calls, or if they do meet with her, they trivialize issues.

"Sixty percent of parents are not interested in talking with me," she says. "The other 40 percent offer a lot of resistance.

"I try to work with the whole family. Parents need to refuse to play tug of war. It's really scary, but they need to let [their teenaged children] make some choices."

Miller, who says she talks openly with her daughters and their friends, says mutual respect is the most effective policy.

"You've got to realize that they are savvy and you cannot talk down to them," says Miller. "If you are going to be preachy it's not going to do any good at all. If they've got as sense of self-respect they are not going to do a lot of these things. Self-worth is what these kids lack."

Articles reprinted courtesy of Monterey County Weekly
© 2004 Milestone Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

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